a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Monday, 11 June 2012

06/11/12 Kevin Lowe and Building Defense

As managers go, Kevin Lowe is not perfect. Some of the seeds of the disaster of 2009-10 and beyond were sewn by the former Oilers GM. However, he has shown an aptitude for building defense. Even though he's not at the helm any more, it won't hurt to have his insights. A quick look at his recent track record shows us why.

The Oilers used seven defensemen in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup run. Six of them - Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek, Steve Staios, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Dick Tarnstrom and Matt Greene - were all Lowe acquisitions. Only Jason Smith was a hold-over from the Sather era.

Of course, the whole thing fell apart shortly after Game 7, and the once-promising back end needed to be quickly rebuilt on the fly. Filling all the holes that were left would prove impossible in such a short time frame. First year players Ladislav Smid and Jan Hejda were key parts of the 2006-07 defense; so too was Matt Greene who was in just his second NHL season. Once Bergeron and a third round pick were traded to the Islanders for Denis Grebeshkov, the Oilers were without a true offensive defender. Steve Staios ended the season as the Oilers' highest-scoring rearguard with just 17 points.

In the off season Lowe traded Jason Smith and underachieving forward Joffrey Lupul to Philadelphia and got Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and a third round pick in exchange. In the two season prior, Pitkanen had scored 89 points in just 135 games and appeared to be an answer to the offensive black hole. Tom Gilbert would play his first full season, and Grebeshkov was strong as a rookie. In the end Sheldon Souray was a very bad bet, but at the time he was an upgrade over what was in place.

When Pitkanen didn't work out, Lowe shipped him out of town and then managed to bring in Lubomir Visnovsky from Los Angeles - an underrated but highly effective player. By the time Steve Tambellini took the reigns on July 31st of 2008, the blueline Lowe had built for him included Souray, Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Visnovsky, Staios, Smid and Strudwick. In three off-seasons the Oilers went from having an absolutely dreadful defense thanks to circumstances largely outside the team's control, to a back end that was a major point of strength.

Even more encouraging is the fact that none of the regulars in 2008-09 were acquired through the draft. Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Visnovsky and Smid came to Edmonton via trade; while Souray, Staios and Strudwick were free agent signings. The Oilers currently have a lot of good defensive prospects in the system, but most are thought to be a considerable amount of time away from effecting the NHL team.

The fact that the Oilers have built their forward group through the draft will look awfully smart if Kevin Lowe can help Steve Tambellini pull off another defensive remake like the one that was completed in the summer of 2008.

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